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Greenhouse Gas Session Generates Political Heat

By Richard Brenneman
Friday March 07, 2008

The draft city Climate Action Plan presented to Berkeley planning commissioners Wednesday night resembles another document in their possession: the proposed new Downtown Area Plan. 

Both documents call for concentrating new development along public transit corridors and speak to the need for inducements to stimulate bicycle and pedestrian traffic. 

But a more basic concern troubled some in the audience: the fact that Wednesday night’s meeting wasn’t announced on the city’s own website calendar or on the Planning Commission’s own web pages. 

Commissioner Susan Wengraf said she was also concerned that the period for comment on the plan closes today (Friday), only two days after the meeting. 

The meeting, the commission’s third in eight days, was devoted—with one exception—to the climate plan, the fruit of Measure G, passed by 81 percent of Berkeley voters in November 2006. 

That exception was a comment from Steve Wollmer on the density bonus ordinance proposals now before the commission. Wollmer is suing the city over its approval of the so-called Trader Joe’s project, which was granted additional size to compensate for the cost of parking spaces for the residential building’s commercial tenant. 

That lawsuit goes to trial March 21, Wollmer said. 

Wollmer urged commissioners to grant the bonus only as compensation to developers for the cost of including low-income housing in their projects, which he said is the purpose of the state density bonus law, and not to burden neighbors with buildings granted bigger size solely for the benefit of commercial tenants. 

Timothy Burroughs, who was hired as the city’s climate action director, serves on the staff of the Planning and Development Department, and he told commissioners that their concerns would include formulating ways to integrate the climate plan into the city’s general and area plans and the zoning ordinance. 

Measure G imposes a mandate that the city reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions—believed the prime culprit in global warming—by 80 percent by 2050. 

Burroughs said Berkeley produced 635,000 tons of greenhouse gases in 2005, not including an additional 200,000 tons or more generated by breakdown of the city’s wastes in landfills. 

The figures also don’t include emissions from UC Berkeley, which estimated its 2006 emissions at 220,000 tons (209,000 metric tons)—also not including landfill emissions. 

To effect real reduction in emissions, he said “takes compact residential growth and development near transit,” the concept planners call transit-oriented development or smart growth. 

But a representative of Berkeley’s best-known smart growth advocacy group said the plan didn’t go far enough. 

Dorothy Walker, a retired UC Berkeley development executive, appeared on behalf of Livable Berkeley to declare that the plan didn’t go far enough, and to say that it “should unequivocally state” that development should be located near public transit. 

Commissioner David Stoloff agreed. 

Walker said the plan also falls short in providing leadership and education, “and is far less bold that the plans adopted by other cities.” 

“You have to look at intensifying housing on transit corridors,” said commission Chair James Samuels. “I’d like to propose that you focus on that. There is a very basic connection between density and where it is and vehicle miles traveled.” 

Commissioner Gene Poschman disagreed, saying evidence didn’t support the claim that living near transit reduced the use of cars, the large single source of GHGs. 

He said a statewide study showed that “90 percent of the people who lives around transit have cars, and 60 to 70 percent of them drive alone.”  

He also said that the transit-oriented development study called for a density of 15 to 25 units per acre, compared to the typical Berkeley development with a 250 unit per acre density. 

Commissioner Helen Burke, a Sierra Club activist, said the plan’s land use and transportation proposals needed to be strengthened, and should include a transportation services fee to be imposed on new projects. 

Burke also called for a carbon tax similar to that already in effect in Boulder, Colo., and for a reduction or outright elimination of parking requirements imposed on developers. 

Wengraf said the plan didn’t include preservation and adaptive reuse of existing buildings as an energy saving measure in its land use section, “and this is a very important principle to include.” 

She also said that the plan should consider the poor condition of streets, sidewalks and pathways, which discourages GHG-reducing pedestrian and bike trips. Another source of GHGs she said wasn’t considered is wildfires and the concomitant need for vegetation control. 

Another hot button issue that may play a role in climate change policies is Bus Rapid Transit, the proposal by AC Transit to run buses down dedicated lanes carved out of existing traffic lanes between Berkeley and San Leandro. 

Businesses and residents along the proposed Telegraph Avenue corridor have expressed concerns the plan will hurt businesses which lose parking along the thoroughfare and add to congestion on adjacent residential streets. 

Both friends and foes of BRT addressed the commission, with supporters saying the bus service would reduce GHGs by taking people out of their cars, with foes saying low ridership would mean the program wasted money on expensive, fuel-inefficient buses. 

Jim Bullock, a foe, said AC Transit’s most optimistic projection estimated 9,320 rider trips a day, which he said meant an actual ridership of 4,660, since almost all riders made round trips, with an estimated cost of $86,000 for each new rider. 

Len Conly of Friends of BRT said a system in a city like Berkeley could save 654,000 tons of GHGs over 20 years. 

Chris Peeples, president of the AC Transit Board of Directors, told commissioner that “a number of us worked very hard on ABAG (the Association of Bay Area Governments) to get ABAG to talk about transit corridor hot nodes.” 

Development along transit corridors is common in Europe, he said, and in the early years of the 20th century, most development in the East Bay also arose along transit corridors. 

Wengraf said many in Berkeley, especially in the hills, couldn’t use buses because there is little or no service from the hills to the bay. 

Peeples said that most homes in the hills had four and five car garages—a remark that drew a scornful laugh from the commissioner—and said that providing bus service there would mean taking it away from a poorer and more densely populated community. And if the city wants service in the hills, he said, “the city just has to pay for it.” 

Phil Morton of the Bicycle Friendly Berkeley Coalition said the plan had neglected to include young bike riders in its calculations, and also called on commissions and city staff to serve as examples by abandoning their cars and pedaling to work. 

Zachary Running Wolf, again campaigning for mayor, urged a slogan he has painted on stop signs around the East Bay: Stop Driving. 

And Merilee Mitchell, like Running Wolf a former candidate for a seat on the city council, said the plan failed to call for preservation of trees in the existing landscape.